BAE mounts the Last Charge of the Light Cavalry
British Swedish tank to slip through MoD's closing door?
Global arms multinational BAE Systems has announced its bid to squeeze a last bit of cash out of the Ministry of Defence before next year's probable change of government and certain major reorganisation of MoD procurement plans.
The company says that it will put forward an offer tomorrow (Thursday) to supply a version of its Swedish-made CV90 armoured combat vehicle to the British Army, replacing the aged CVR(T) Scimitars now in service with British cavalry regiments and various other units. Most people refer to these as "light tanks", as they have tracks and armour, and carry nothing but a direct-fire weapon and their crew - no footsoldiers riding as passengers. The cavalry themselves tend to argue that the only tank is a proper heavyweight Main Battle Tank (eg Blighty's Challenger 2), and Scimitar and its ilk are "armoured combat vehicles" - or even "armoured cars", if you meet an older cavalryman.
This will fulfil the "Scout" portion of the Army's Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) plan to replace much of its combat vehicle fleet. The rest of the FRES programme has been more or less kicked into touch now, to await the Strategic Defence Review which will be carried out next year by the new government, and may not survive in its present form.
BAE's plan for FRES Scout is to present a modified CV90 chassis built at its plant at Örnsköldsvik in Sweden, and put a Scout turret with a fancy new cannon* and other systems on the machine here in the UK.
The British tank industry, owned by BAE, has been allowed by the firm to largely become moribund in favour of heavy investments in US armoured-vehicle factories - in fact BAE has announced further layoffs and closures across its remaining UK tank plants recently. Historically, despite the fact that the tank is a British invention, Britain hasn't produced especially great tanks (though there have been some characteristically cunning inventions by British engineers such as "Chobham" armour) and it has been clear for a while that nobody really thinks an entire armoured combat vehicle can be usefully built here any more.
BAE's rival for the FRES Scout deal is General Dynamics' UK tentacle, offering the Spanish-developed ASCOD-2. Like the CV90, this is already in service with other armies.
In the previous contest to supply the FRES "Utility Vehicle" - to replace larger infantry-hauling vehicles rather than little Scimitars - General Dynamics managed to beat out BAE despite BAE's immensely strong UK political connections. Ex pharma'n'sweets millionaire Lord Drayson, then MoD kit-purchasing minister, was so enraged by the Army's refusal to do as he'd told them that he resigned - though the official line was that he wanted to spend more time with his alcohol-fuelled car.
Subsequently, however, the whole FRES Utility Vehicle plan was punted into the next government. Meanwhile Drayson has returned to the MoD with an anomalous portfolio - as well as one in the new biznovation industry - which seems to rank him above the new kit-buying minister and at least equal with the actual defence secretary.
BAE may have good reason, then, to think that this time the taxpayers' money will be theirs. The fix is very likely to be in, and the Army will pay through the nose for a few industrial jobs to be preserved as well as for its new scout tanks. The cavalry, who have been promised replacements for their antique Scimitars for decades now with no sign of any action, probably won't mind too much what they get as long as they get something.
Commander of British cavalry's final charge in '91: "Actually, tank war was over in the '70s"
But all the same there are good reasons why the Utility Vehicle plans got put on hold. The original concept of FRES was for proper armoured vehicles light enough to be flown to a war rather than having to be shipped by sea and land - hence the "Rapid Effects" bit. But experience in the last few years has shown - as anyone really could have told the Army - that this is fantasy. A vehicle light enough to be airfreighted in a medium transport plane** can't be armoured heavily enough to resist common roadside bombs, heavy buried mines etc. Indeed, even a 60-tonne main battle tank can be knocked out by such means.
Meanwhile, again, experience in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last few years has shown that there probably isn't any one fleet of armoured vehicles you could buy that would be suitable for all or most wars - there certainly isn't one that would be the right one for both of those. Both America and the UK have wound up buying two different fleets largely off the shelf in recent years.
The days of old, where you could be sure you were buying largely for a war on the German plains against the Red Army, are gone. Even if we were still playing Cold War Tank Battle on a nice flat place without too many cities, there are those who would say that the heavy tank and its supporting cast - scout tanks, infantry combat vehicles etc - have largely had their day.
The man who commanded the British armour for what will probably turn out to have been their final operation at full divisional strength - General Rupert Smith, in the 1991 Gulf War - has stated in writing that in his opinion the last real tank-on-tank battles ever seen took place in the 1970s. By his time, the real work was already being done by battlefield air power. Pressed on this by your correspondent a couple of years back, the general said he wouldn't scrap Blighty's tanks now - but nor would he replace them. This is a very common view among modern British soldiers we've spoken with - some of them even cavalrymen.
Perhaps General Smith is wrong, and the many other tank sceptics are wrong. Maybe the main battle tank still has a useful role to play, somehow. But that doesn't mean that recce/scout tanks do. They are competing for business with more and more rivals lately - helicopters, of course, but also ground-scanning radar and infrared aeroplanes both manned and unmanned, satellites, and now even stratosphere-prowling solar powered wingships and dirigibles etc etc.
No doubt there will always be a place for a tough, sneaky recce soldier able to get out onto the ground and see for himself - if necessary unleashing a hefty bit of firepower on his own account rather than just calling down the big hammer from the skies. Certainly the recce cavalry regiments would argue this.
Maybe it's time for a return to the
armoured car era
But in fact the toughest and sneakiest of all - the SAS - prefer to largely do without armour when playing that game, finding that a vehicle such as the Jackal is more to their taste. The Jackal was originally designed to SAS requirements as a sort of ultimate version of the heavily-armed "Wolf" or WMIK land rovers which were already very popular among our elite forces.
Nowadays every British combat brigade goes to Afghanistan with a Commando-style Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF) of specially picked troops trained up by SAS instructors and mounted in modern kit such as the Jackal.
For mobile off-road warfare, Jackal or its ilk seems more the way of the future in recce work than a new Scimitar. The hard-corps culture of the BRF - as opposed to that of the traditionally horsey, champagne-quaffing, ceremonial-loving cavalry regiments, even today a little reluctant to get too far from their mounts - seems more appropriate to the task. Especially now that so much mainstream recce activity is better done from the air or by robots, and now that so much warfare is urban or on-road anyway, and thus totally unsuitable for tracked vehicles.
So it's fair to say that the cavalry and BAE's tank division will be glad to see at least a few tanks make it under the bar before the new strategic review perhaps - at last - decides that classic WWII armoured warfare is largely over.
But plenty of soldiers won't be so chuffed, feeling that they'd rather spend the cash on other things. And plenty of taxpayers might rather wait and see if we actually still want to play Classic Tank War before deciding to buy classic tank war kit. ®
*This is the so-called Case Telescoped Weapon System (CTWS), in which a 40mm projectile is moved back into the cartridge holding its propellant. This means that the projectile can be shot at very high velocity without needing to have a very long round and long cannon breech - the gun and its ammo have been "telescoped", allowing for a smaller, lighter turret and easier ammo storage and handling.
The idea was developed to make light tanks and infantry vehicles more able to penetrate their rivals' armour in classic tank war. However, it is now being sold as a means of piercing the amazingly resistant mud walls of Afghan compounds. (You can dream up a reason to send just about anything to Afghanistan, and people always do: this doesn't mean it's worth doing.)
**There are heavy air transports able to haul a single main battle tank, but this isn't practical. Blighty only has five such planes, and even the USA doesn't even try to despatch heavy armour by air en masse.